“At least everyone in our family is healthy. That’s what counts”
You could tell she was struggling to hold back the tears when she said this. Tears that hovered there all the time, she confessed.
We had paused a few minutes in our demolition of room after room in her house on Staten Island. Purple walls, floor tiles – everything except the framing was pulled apart as we worked to expose the wood so it could dry out before the hard work of re-insulating and reinstalling drywall could begin.
A few things were salvaged – a poster made for her daughter’s sweet 16 that was above the water mark . . . a smooth rock someone had collected . . . a couple of purses that had been out of reach on some hooks on the door.
But everything else – carpets, furniture, clothing, medicine from the medicine cabinet, appliances – everything else had been moved out onto the street. Waiting for dump trucks to cart them away.
As you looked up and down the block – the same kind of mountainous piles stretched in front of house after house after house.
J had come upstairs to see how things were going and showed us the attic hatch where her daughter had slept the night of Hurricane Sandy as the water flooded not only the first floor but covered the second floor by several feet.
Now she and the 7 other people who lived in this house – 3 generations – had no home and were trying to make do. Hurricane Sandy stormed in adding insult to injury as they battled with joblessness as well.
Over Thanksgiving, my family traveled down to help with the cleanup, offering my husband’s carpentry skills and our hard work. We wanted to help some other families get back into their homes as soon as possible after Hurricane Sandy.
Here are a few of my thoughts from the experience:
Seeing Nature’s Disastrous Potential Is Humbling
For my family and I, we were humbled by what we saw:
- Houses moved halfway down the block. One had a sign – “This is not 1022 Colony Ave – It’s 1014 Colony Ave” and gave the owner’s number.
- We stood in the street and tried to fathom that a few weeks ago the water was 10 feet deep there. 3-4 feet above our heads.
- Scores of cars that can never be used again lining the streets – one perched precariously on a wall between two homes. A delivery van tipped on its side and deposited in the middle of a garden.
Blocks and blocks and blocks of devastation.
Certainly, our family has a little bit of the doomsday prepper mentality – we put a lot into developing our self-sufficiency and it allows us to breathe easier. But even so, it’s a reality check to see how little our modern-day conveniences can do against this kind of natural force. We saw how vulnerable we truly are. It underscores the importance of planning and thinking as a family about all the What If’s out there . . .
How Much Can Be Done When A Bunch Of Strong-Willed People With Strong Values Take Action
Equally humbling – however – was the energy we saw over the few days we were there – People bravely tearing up their houses so they could rebuild.
And a powerful force of volunteers.
For most of the time, we worked with a group of several hundred people from a chain of New Jersey churches. Most of the people who came in to help had never wielded a crowbar before in their life or ripped out drywall. But you wouldn’t know it – because by the end of each day another house had been stripped down and made ready for reconstruction.
As my husband noted – he’d been working with construction crews for years – and rarely had he seen this kind of efficiency – this level of work done.
When You Share A Purpose, Work Goes Smoothly And Walls Dissolve
Equally as rare was the consideration shown to each other – no one got hurt.
You would think if you handed a group of strangers a bunch of tools and gave them this huge, difficult job, it wouldn’t take long for swearing and bickering to break out.
There was none of that – in fact just the opposite. The little kids were out front banging nails down on boards as a safety precaution. People were moving swiftly carrying garbage bags and plywood out. Toilets hauled out . . . Crowbars prying and sledge hammers swinging . . . But to the very end of each day, the cheerfulness and serious work attitude persisted.
Many of these volunteers had themselves lost power for 10 days thanks to Sandy. The church that we slept in housed volunteers from Indiana, Alaska, Wisconsin and Maryland. People came from all over because, like us, they just couldn’t turn away from neighbors who had been hit by this level of catastrophe.
Everything Changes After A Good Day Of Good Hard Work
On Thursday after our first house was done, we gathered with other volunteer teams in the semi-darkness near the now calm ocean to share lukewarm turkey and mashed potatoes. Kids falling asleep on laps, stories swapped and people who were strangers just hours before felt a rare companionship.
And boy, did that food taste good!
People Make The Difference
We quickly realized after talking to people there, FEMA may give you a check – but that check wouldn’t go far enough.
It took people giving a little extra to help move things towards reconstruction. It took not only the hard work of everyone who showed up. But also the energy we brought. To be surrounded by this devastation can truly sap your spirit. I cannot imagine what it takes for homeowners here to get up each day and get back to cleaning out their homes.
The hugs, smiles, thank-you’s and relief we saw said it all. It helps to know you’re not alone in taking this on. And only people coming to help because their heart says it’s the right thing to do can really communicate this.
Volunteering Helps You And Your Children Put Things In Perspective
Our kids don’t get a lot of stuff – you can read about our approach to gift-giving here. We keep things simple. But they still love their comfortable beds, the spot on the couch where they sit and watch TV, a favorite sweater, the toaster that makes getting a snack a cinch, the photo albums that they spend hours leafing through and chuckling. Glimpsing what it’s like to lose everything helps them realize how much we have.
You Can Put Up With Much More Than You Think
Frankly, I was concerned about how well my kids would manage sleeping in a crowded church on cots and then putting in a full day of hard work for a couple days. But they managed well – working straight through with energy and strength that earned them lots of compliments.
A. started off one morning with a stomachache. When I checked in with her a few hours later, she brushed some sheetrock-dusted hair out of her face, smiled and said she was fine.
Family Fitness Makes Volunteering Go Farther
I was constantly aware of how much our conditioning and experience doing hard work together allowed us to work hard to the very end of each “house cleaning”. One house we worked on had plywood sheathing under the sheetrock. It was a behemoth to rip up. Cassius used a crowbar and brute strength to finish a couple rooms and O. carted out ripped up plywood after most people had finished up. Every hand was appreciated in this effort . . . But it certainly helps when you can put extra oomph into your work.
As a family, having experience coaching our children through challenging physical work made it easier for us to give quick directives and get a response when doing this project. Essential for getting things done with minimal problems or injuries.
Fitness Is An Essential Component For Preparedness
When people talk about preparing for natural disasters or terrorist attacks, usually they discuss having a plan, equipment, and maybe some skills.
Rarely do I hear people discussing the importance of fitness for preparing for disaster. As I stood there imagining the night of the hurricane and getting a sense of what it meant to cope with the aftermath, I was keenly aware of how important being healthy is for dealing with this kind of stress. Physically it gives you the strength and endurance to do what’s needed. But as I’ve noted before, it can give you emotional and mental strength as well.
And like most disasters, the hardships don’t end very soon. We were able to return to our comfortable house after a couple days on cots. The families in Staten Island still have a long haul before they can come home.
If you want to help, Habitat For Humanity is planning a rebuilding effort that they tentatively say may happen in late December.
About Sarah Clachar And Fit Family Together
Since expecting their first Since expecting their first child, Sarah and her husband Cassius have made fitness a core part of their family life. From biking to hiking . . . from the heart of New York City to a farm in New England, they have found a way to stay active together. And through all this exercising as a family they discovered that family fitness builds not only strong bodies – but stronger families.
A professional health writer with a BA in biology, gardener and foodie Sarah brings a wealth of expertise in nutrition and health. A personal trainer and inveterate tinkerer, Cassius brings innovation to making family fitness work.
Ready to make family fitness part of your family life? Take the Fit Family Together 7 Day Family Fitness Challenge and put your own family fitness plan together.